Why 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' Is One of the Best Food Movies of All Time
Can a movie give you hunger pangs? I've learned the answer is yes.
All screengrabs via YouTube.
There are few films that make me as hungry as The Muppet Christmas Carol. The film, released on this day 25 years ago, is a glimpse into how the other, Dickensian, anthropomorphic talking-puppet half eats. I’ve watched it sporadically through the years, feeling each time that it's been cruelly calibrated to induce stupid, unrelenting hunger within the viewer.
The Muppet Christmas Carol has receded into that same, homogenised cultural canon of Christmas movies as Home Alone and The Santa Clause. It's shot with the same bleary, soft-focus 35-millimetre haze that seemed characteristic of this genre in the early 90s. I suspect this is partially why it is not discussed in the same breath as, say, a Babette’s Feast or Eat Drink Man Woman, those movies held up as the pinnacles of food cinema, even though it's every bit their equal. Those are movies where characters' hunger spills beyond the frame and, somehow, makes us more hungry than we realise we're even capable of.
I have my suspicions as to why The Muppet Christmas Carol isn't considered a "food movie," whatever that means. It’s a children's movie, for one, with the added vanilla stench of Disney. Unfairly, it's also been submerged beneath the countless other adaptations of Dickens' original story. Besides, the Muppets endure as the kind of cultural icons some naive, earnest part of our culture revisits to feel comforted; all we've become conditioned to expect from these puppets is a sense of warmth.
This is a film that pays such diligent, delicate attention to food that the larger meaning Dickens grasped for when he first published this story in 1843 somehow becomes more persuasive. The first words uttered in the film, by a pair of hogs milling about town, are about food: “That was a fine meal. What should we do now?” one asks. “Lunch,” the other recommends. A vendor, outside the frame, shouts to the townspeople asking them to get their Christmas turkeys. The film’s narrators, a rat named Rizzo and a species of indeterminate origin named Gonzo, stand before a bed of red apples that look as vivid as rubies.
“I am here for the food,” Rizzo declares. The apples are out of focus, but they somehow end up being all I can focus on.
I mean, come on. This makes me fucking hungry, and it's a pile of unwashed fruit.
The film's narrative more or less follows the exact blueprint of its Dickensian namesake, substituting talking puppets for humans. Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge as a prickly, wearied old man parachuting through eras past, present, and future under the guidance of various ghosts. (Our narrators join in on this journey.)
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In the past, Scrooge looks at his lost lover (Meredith Braun), his gaze burning with regret—she was once his fiancee, we learn, until he left her for the promise of more money. Scrooge is a loner by both choice and circumstance, and the film is about his suppressed, silenced desires. This is plainly laid bare when we see him forlornly eating bread and cheese, looking pallid and rather hideous, before a fireplace in the dark one night. As far as culinary companionship goes, well, bread and cheese really sucks.
When he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, a colossal and very pleasant puppet, Scrooge faces basketfuls of produce and bread spread across a living room. “Imagine the grocery bills,” he gasps. He's facing a big, dumb bounty: Swiss cheese pockmarked with holes; frizzy green tops still attached to carrots; some inexcusably luminous braided challah.
Scrooge cannot comprehend this creature's appetite. It's beyond comprehension of his stomach—or, better yet, his capacity for pleasure.
He embarks on a tour wherein he spies quasi-voyeuristically on other people’s kitchens. The big ol' bearded ghost takes Scrooge on a tour of the house of Scrooge's most loyal and mistreated employee, Bob Cratchit (Kermit, voiced by Steve Whitmire). Cratchit’s family, which includes a wife and litter of pigs and frogs, is dirt poor.
Rizzo smells goose through a chimney and eagerly falls down the chute and directly onto the flaming hot bird, tap-dancing atop the meat to resist the burns. The bird is rotating on a spit, captured so lovingly that it makes Big Night look as if it were shot with a potato.
The goose is the centrepiece of a pithy and unsatisfying meal the family eats together with heads hung. Scrooge peers through the window, declares it a meagre feast, and realises he is partly responsible for it. Scrooge’s churlishness has material consequence—he pays Cratchit so little that this is all the family can afford to eat.
The bird is rotating on a spit, captured so lovingly that it makes 'Big Night' look as if it were shot with a potato.
But Cratchit's multi-species family sings in praise of what they have, which isn’t much. The table is spare, but, for this family, it’s enough. Scrooge’s eyes well with tears. He takes notice of Bob’s frail, ill son, Tiny Tim. The scene is driven by a subtle sense of memento mori; facing this paltry feast, Scrooge wonders aloud: Will Tiny Tim live?
When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrives to show Scrooge the future, we learn the answer is no. We’re taken back to this kitchen in the wake of Tiny Tim's death one year later. “Life is made up of meetings and partings,” Cratchit states while rationalising Tiny Tim’s death to his surviving children just before they sit down for a meal, trying to assign sense to the totally senseless.
It’s a reminder that this movie, ostensibly one meant for children, is also a film about death. Time has a way of blunting the darker, more sobering edges of a movie like this—it’s easy to remember, as I had, the beauty of the lavish feast that the film closes with without recalling how glum everything preceding it was. We’re all lurching towards death without even realising it.
I don't know that it's a coincidence that Jim Henson himself died two years before this film's release, initially leaving most of his collaborators in a daze. Though the initial fog of grief had subsided by the time filming began, his memory presided over the cast and crew: "It was such a soulful piece, and a chance to carry on the heart of Jim’s work: the idea that people were basically good, and there was enough in the world for everyone," Dave Goelz, who plays Gonzo, told The Guardian in 2015. "It was cathartic."
Scrooge, in his final moments with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is taken to a cemetery where he dusts a film of snow off his own grave and starts crying and repenting, solemnly promising to be a better man.
He wakes up the next day somewhat reborn. This sojourn to an imaginary hell has transformed him, momentarily, into a more joyous, thoughtful empath. He vows to treat those in his life better while he still can, reneging on his ill-tempered mood. Food is his apology to Cratchit and his hungry family: He buys a Christmas turkey for the family.
The film closes with a feast that feels earned; it had, theretofore, been an unrelenting onslaught of hypothetical miseries. The room is packed with puppets gathering before a Christmas turkey. The camera longingly pans over the turkey dinner and its wealth of sides. It’s as if the cameraman is in a trance, reminding us to be gluttons while we still can before the food runs out, the table empties, and the people who once sat there are gone.
The meal is your standard British Christmas dinner, which is to say it’s upsettingly majestic: Turkey with stuffing; sliced, boiled carrots; cranberry jelly. It's a meal big enough to make Tiny Tim feel strong. You look at it and believe he'll live to eat another.